Who after 2016 still trusts the polls? The terrible uncertainty of the 2018 midterms

The odds are good for Democrats running for Congress, but who still trusts the polls?

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It is cold and drizzling this morning in New York city, and so foggy that you can’t even see the top of the skyscrapers – not such bad weather that it feels likely to keep large numbers of New York voters home, but a perfect metaphor for the final day of midterms voting. Because, while the odds are stacked in favour of the Democrats when it comes back to winning Congress, if not the Senate, who after 2016 still trusts the polls? The future is still murky.

The polling experts at fivethirtyeight.com are giving the Democrats an 87 per cent chance of winning control of the House. That “might seem like a sure thing, but it isn’t – would you board a plane that had a 14 percent chance of crashing?” writes Nate Silver, the site’s founder.

There are many reasons for Democrats to feel positive: Trump’s personal unpopularity, the unprecedented number of early votes suggesting turnout could be extremely high, the historic tendency for the president’s party to do badly during midterms, the indications of high levels of enthusiasm among Democratic voters, as illustrated by the high turnout for Democratic primaries.

But this election is nail-biting because for Democrats there is just so much at stake. They might have everything to win, but they also have so much more to lose than the Republicans.

Should they flip at least 23 seats and regain control of Congress, Democrats will be better-placed to check the President’s worst instincts and they will be able to ramp up the legal pressure on Donald Trump. Given that Trump has tried to turn the election into a referendum on his presidency, a Democratic blue wave will send out a strong signal – but not such a strong signal that Donald Trump should suddenly start worrying about his re-election chances in 2020.

Then consider, however, the alternative scenario: what if the Democrats don’t flip Congress? For Trump it would be an opportunity to double-down on his anti-immigration policies and rhetoric, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to go ahead and close the Mueller investigation into Russia’s election interference and possibly fire the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the investigation, or the attorney general Jeff Sessions.

A Democratic loss today would also send out the terrifying message that Trump’s overt racism and misogyny, his mendaciousness, his attacks on the press and other American institutions, his flouting of democratic norms and his reckless foreign policy have not been enough to galvanize an effective resistance or turn-off his base. Should the Democrats fail to take Congress during these midterms, it will arguably be a darker day for American democracy than 8 November 2016.

As things stand, the Democrats have only a one in six chance of taking back the Senate.

At New Statesman America, we’re excited for the possibility of a democratic blue wave, a re-energized Democratic base and a diverse new influx of Democratic congressmen and women offering a positive, hopeful alternative to Trump’s politics of anger and fear (here’s are profiles of some of the candidates we’re excited about). But on election day, you’d be mad not to feel nervous.

Update: an earlier version of this piece suggested that Senate seats had been gerrymandered in favour of Republicans. Senate seats are allocated on a statewide basis, and therefore gerrymandering is not possible; it is in House of Representatives elections that the districts are able to be gerrymandered.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.